Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday to honor loved ones who have passed into the afterlife. A reigning symbol of Dia de los Muertos is the calavera, which personifies death as a skull. Jose Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican artist whose satirical cartoons touched on the political issues of his time, and many of his cartoons depicted these calaveras. He became famous for "La Calavera Catrina" (The Elegant Skull), an image of a female calavera. "La Catrina" became a symbolic image of the Day of the Dead, and Posada's works became an enduring. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston commemorates the 100th anniversary of Posada's death and with an exhibition entitled, "Calavaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada."
The exhibition decorates the white walls between the lower level staircase of MFAH's Caroline Weiss Law building. It is separated into three sections, looking to the viewer like an unfolded pamphlet. (A real pamphlet, given to guests when they arrive at the museum, takes them on "A Looking Activity" tour to find other skulls in MFAH, of which there are 10.)
In the center are Posada's pieces, which include "La Calavera Catrina," his "most iconic calaveras," and others, like "La Calavera Amorosa" (The Skeleton of Love). Drawn in 1907, it was printed in a Mexican newspaper in 1911 as the principal image for an cartoon depicting the execution of two Guatemalan criminals who assassinated General Manuel Barillas. Posada's "El doctor improvisado" (The Improvised Doctor), hanging in the very center of the exhibit, tells a different story, albeit with the same outcome: The engraving tells the story of a traveling doctor who comes across death. As a gesture of friendliness, the doctor offers the bony burier his coat; in return, Death gives the doctor the ability to know whether his patients will live or die. In the end, however, it is the doctor who dies. The expiration of both the murderers, who took life, and the doctor, expected to sustain life, make clear that death is not a respecter of persons. It falls on the just and unjust.
The left and right section of this wall "pamphlet" display the artists influenced by Posada's works. Many of these pieces are lithographs, see-through silkscreens that make each artwork look transient, much like our time here on Earth. Contrary to the commemorative retrospective facet of the exhibition, the macabre pieces imply the following message: There is no escaping death. The black-and-white coloring of nearly every painting, also: There is no in-between; you are either alive or dead.
To Mexican-American artist Luis Jimenez, death is a dance. His "Baile con la Talaca" (Dance with Death)" (1984) lithograph shows him in a lusty tango with La Catrina, while "Self-Portrait" (1996) shows the artist decomposing. That "Self-Portrait" was created after "Baile" is probably a coincidence, but it does to help to illustrate the inevitable conclusion to being in death's clutches. "Baile" shows Jimenez and Lady Death as half-human and half-skeleton. They embrace each other, with Jimenez's hand grazing her ribs, while her bony fingers clasp his head. Jimenez is also half-skeleton in the latter lithograph. He is not a completed calavera, but the process is underway, as his sagging, pock-marked flesh reveals bone underneath. Jimenez's eyes and lips are uncovered, revealing hollow eye sockets and an eerie grin. The image takes up the frame, forcing viewers to come close -- and become entangled in Death's permanent embrace.
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Posada's influence reached all places and all mediums. Manfred Bischoff explores death in a rather odd way: with jewelry. One ring ("Rene Descartes") and two brooches ("Taugenichts"; "Workingman Hero") hang enclosed in a glass. Despite all three having a mini coral skull attached to them, they are quite decorative.
Jerry Bywaters, an American artist and native Texan, created a lithograph painting of a graveyard in Terlingua. This place, "Mexican Graveyard-Terlingua," transforms every year during Dia de los Muertos, when residents of the city come to pay tribute to the dead.
A map search shows that Terlingua is approximately 10 hours away from Houston; La Catrina is never too far away.
"Calaveras Mexicanas: The Art and Influence of Jose Guadalupe Posada" will be on view through December 15. Visit mfah.org for more information.